An unfortunate, picayune footnote to the Rambo franchise

David G. Hughes on Adrian Grunberg’s ‘Rambo: Last Blood’ (2019)

Even though writer-director Sylvester Stallone has been sitting on the idea of Rambo in Mexico for over ten years, when the plot synopsis for his most recent (and perhaps last) foray into the world of the warrior nomad was announced — war hero John Rambo saving his daughter from Mexican sex traffickers — the reviews already began to write themselves: “Trumpian fantasy”, “Trumpian, anti-Mexican nightmare”, “toxic and Trumpian”, “a film designed for Trumpland”. While there’s no denying that the depiction of hilariously easy border-crossing is pregnant with political extrapolation, the critics seem to be sharpening their (not so diverse) critical knives with the same level of portentous seriousness as John Rambo himself. More perspicacious in insight was the gentlemen behind this critic in the screening room who, when the BBFC’s rather titillating promise of “strong bloody violence, gory images” appeared, whispered to his friend: “I hope so, that’s what I’m here for.”

In a time of intense moralistic criticism, a clientele of this sort is destined to fall foul of the refined critical bourgeoisie, and their amoral pleasures condemned. But at least they understand the inherent inconsequential nature of the Rambo tales, as does its creative doyen, Sylvester Stallone. The feeling that large chunks of Rambo’s life occurs between the films is felt more strongly than ever in Last Blood, for which we pick up tens years later, and our visitations are predicated almost entirely on the fact that we find Rambo at a juncture in his life when forced to make a digression and kill again. Indeed, that is what we are all here for; few franchises wear its fundamental bloodlust so openly on its sleeve, and this openness creates a liberating space and, naturally, loyalty and trust in viewers.

The pleasures of the Rambo films exists in the degree of dissonance between the franchise’s grindhouse inconsequentialness and Stallone’s po-faced sub-Nietzchean strive to say something about The World. Nietzsche’s maxim that culture is “spiritualisation of cruelty” is understood in Stallone’s bones and, as a writer, he has a knack for memorable cod-philosophical statements like “live for nothing or die for something,” “when you’re pushed, killing is easy as breathing”, “to survive a war you gotta become war”.

The apex of this was Rambo (2008) — a mood piece in world-weary pessimism and the best in the franchise. It wasn’t difficult to see that Stallone had put in the work, not only in the physical demands that saw him forge his body into the bulky shape of a silverback gorilla at 62 years old (a wonderful physical performance embodying the weight of his deeds), but also taking on the writing and directing duties for a tumultuous shoot in Thailand. With Stallone grumbling lines to himself like “You know what you are… what you’re made of. War is in your blood. Don’t fight it”, it registers as an expression of interior self-acceptance at a point when Stallone himself was settling for who he was as an artist and industry-man, amounting to something of a grand auteurist passion project. Depicting a man in turmoil over his association with violence only to accept it via dark spiritual circumnavigation resulted in a bloodlust film experience so shocking and so enervating (with an excellent score) that the end result could only be described as cathartic.

All of which makes Last Blood so dreadfully disappointing. Where Sly had once worked his ass off to embody the part, and simultaneously have Rambo embody him, now it’s all Sly. While watching Last Blood, you may find yourself asking if Rambo has gone AWOL, replaced by a loquacious cowboy written for a script that was never intended to include a pop-culture icon known for taciturn stoicism and a non-negotiable long mane with a supplementary bandanna (the bow and arrow appears only briefly, too). More so, where once John Rambo’s perpetual descent into lurid violence despite his better nature said something about Stallone’s cosmic predeterminism, Last Blood is little more than a cynical exercise in marketing, a Liam Neeson script circa 2008 retrofitted with Rambo in the lead.

It’s fair to say that Last Blood has taken the Rambo franchise into ill-conceived exploitation territory, retaining some welcome grindhouse pulp gore but subsisting on its confidence trick alone, now resembling something pitiful like Death Wish V: The Face of Death (1994). Where once Rambo inspired a slew of cheap exploitation rip-offs and thinly-veiled international remakes, now it’s swindling itself, becoming its own rip-off. Perhaps it’s a false memory, but the release of Rambo ten years ago felt somewhat culturally significant, as if the characters return was at least some kind of event. Now you’d be forgiven for not even knowing John was back. In a sense he’s not.

Stallone wasn’t enticed enough to direct this one, instead getting hand-for-hire Adrian Grunberg, who helmed the forgettable Mexican-set Gibson actioner, How I Spent My Summer Vacation (2012). Looking at the final project, you sense Stallone must have known what he was in for, and yet you wonder why he was prepared to put his baby through this cheap ploy in the first place. This is the film’s greatest sin: taking its trusting audience for granted. For a populist filmmaker like Stallone, this is a grave mistake. Sure, they go through the motions; we see John playing with toys and tools of war and working the forge again (always the most masculine thing about the franchise and its blue-collar appeal, especially now it takes place in a literal man cave), but it lacks fire and, as much as John sharpens his knife while brooding away, the film experience is frustratingly blunt.

This is Last Blood’s second and terminal sin: just not delivering the bang for your buck. As much as we may pontificate about the heart and philosophy of Rambo, none of it matters if the action doesn’t deliver. Here it just doesn’t. The film, from the very beginning, teases a final confrontation in John’s aforementioned man-cave — a series of self-made tunnels on his ranch, a DIY project which helps him “keep a lid on it”. Leading to the climax, almost everything else in the film is perfunctorily performed, delivered without pride, conviction or courage, and with as minimal expenditure as possible. It’s hard to even call much of this an action film, and it’s relatively short two-month shoot (the previous Rambo shot over five months) is even more generous than what it feels like on screen.

Editing bares all the hallmarks of producer pressure to cut cut cut the runtime, showcasing so little faith in its audience to maintain interest for more than 89 minutes that it borders on contempt. There is almost certainly a two-hour cut here, a cut which maintains the structure of the narrative and follows through on the multiple thematic motifs introduced in the film (PTSD flashbacks, a bespoke knife John designs for his surrogate daughter, undeniably impressive equestrian skills) and doesn’t merely discard it as the film ends up doing.

When we do finally get to the climax we’ve been relying on to save the movie, it’s merely a montage of omnipotent kills as the villains walk into pre-prepared traps. It’s almost offensive how little the producers think audiences require in order to be pleased and Stallone can be forgiven only to the extent that we don’t know how much he was involved.

The idea that Last Blood is a bad film because it is politically regressive is for the birds, and irrelevant compared to its other failings. Rambo has always sat strangely between counter-culture hero and ‘fuck the system’ vagabond (one wisely cut line from 1982’s First Blood read: “You ever seen the film Easy Rider? Well, I’m Easy Walker”), and yet he is often held up as an uncomplicated symbol of hegemonic American power. It’s easy to complicate John’s political identity if so inclined, but for people to get hot under the collar at Last Blood’s perceived politics is a flattering overestimation of its aesthetic power. This is a colossal failure even on its own terms. It’s not offensive, it’s not shocking, and you almost wish it would be when witnessing the rather banal and impotent world Rambo now inhabits.

You’ll hear a lot about how violent Last Blood is, but what they don’t tell you is how ineffective said violence is. It’s telling that come the end of the film, the guy who turned up with a hankering for blood got exactly what he wanted but, walking out the screening, joked to his friend: “We should have gone to Downton Abbey.”

Rambo: Last Blood is showing in UK cinemas now.

David G. Hughes

By David G. Hughes

David G. Hughes is the Northern-born, London-based Founder & Editor-in-Chief of Electric Ghost Magazine. He graduated in Film Studies (BA) from King's College London and Film Aesthetics (Mst) from The University of Oxford. He has written for Film International, Little White Lies, and more.